The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

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by Peter M. Senge
     
 

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An MIT Professor's pathbreaking book on building "learning organizations" -- corporations that overcome inherent obstacles to learning and develop dynamic ways to pinpoint the threats that face them and to recognize new opportunities. Not only is the learning organization a new source of competitive advantage, it also offers a marvelously empowering approach to… See more details below

Overview

An MIT Professor's pathbreaking book on building "learning organizations" -- corporations that overcome inherent obstacles to learning and develop dynamic ways to pinpoint the threats that face them and to recognize new opportunities. Not only is the learning organization a new source of competitive advantage, it also offers a marvelously empowering approach to work, one which promises that, as Archimedes put it, "with a lever long enough... single-handed I can move the world."

"Forget your old, tired ideas about leadership. The most successful corporation of the 1990s will be something called a learning organization." -- Fortune Magazine.

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From the Publisher
"Forget your old, tired ideas about leadership. The  most successful corporation of the 1990s will be  something called a learning organization." —  Fortune Magazine.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385260954
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/01/1994
Pages:
423
Product dimensions:
6.26(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.19(d)

Read an Excerpt


Chapter 4: The Laws of the Fifth Discipline

1. Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions."

Once there was a rug merchant who saw that his most beautiful carpet had a large bump in its center. He stepped on the bump to flatten it out--and succeeded. But the bump reappeared in a new spot not far away. He jumped on the bump again, and it disappeared--for a moment, until it emerged once more in a new place. Again and again he jumped, scuffing and mangling the rug in his frustration; until finally he lifted one corner of the carpet and an angry snake slithered out.

Often we are puzzled by the causes of our problems; when we merely need to look at our own solutions to other problems in the past. A well-established firm may find that this quarter's sales are off sharply. Why? Because the highly successful rebate program last quarter led many customers to buy then rather than now. Or a new manager attacks chronically high inventory costs and "solves" the problem--except that the sales force is now spending 20 percent more time responding to angry complaints from customers who are still waiting for late shipments, and the rest of its time trying to convince prospective customers that they can have "any color they want so long as it's black."

Police enforcement officials will recognize their own version of this law: arresting narcotics dealers on Thirtieth Street, they find that they have simply transferred the crime center to Fortieth Street. Or, even more insidiously, they learn that a new citywide outbreak of drug-related crime is the result of federal officials intercepting a large shipment of narcotics--which reduced the drugsupply, drove up the price, and caused more crime by addicts desperate to maintain their habit.

Solutions that merely shift problems from one part of a system to another often go undetected because, unlike the rug merchant, those who "solved" the first problem are different from those who inherit the new problem.

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the horse Boxer always had the same answer to any difficulty: "I will work harder," he said. At first, his well-intentioned diligence inspired everyone, but gradually, his hard work began to backfire in subtle ways. The harder he worked, the more work there was to do. What he didn't know was that the pigs who managed the farm were actually manipulating them all for their own profit. Boxer's diligence actually helped to keep the other animals from seeing what the pigs were doing. Systems thinking has a name for this phenomenon: "Compensating feedback": when well intentioned interventions call forth responses from the system that offset the benefits of the intervention. We all know what it feels like to be facing compensating feedback-the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back; the more effort you expend trying to improve matters, the more effort seems to be required.

Examples of compensating feedback are legion. Many of the best intentioned government interventions fall prey to compensating feedback. In the 1960s there were massive programs to build low income housing and improve job skills in decrepit inner cities in the United States. Many of these cities were even worse off in the 1970s despite the largesse of government aid. Why? One reason was that low-income people migrated from other cities and from rural areas to those cities with the best aid programs. Eventually, the new housing units became overcrowded and the job training programs were swamped with applicants. All the while, the city's tax base continued to erode, leaving more people trapped in economically depressed areas.

Similar compensating feedback processes have operated to thwart food and agricultural assistance to developing countries. More food available has been "compensated for" by reduced deaths due to malnutrition, higher net population growth, and eventually more malnutrition.

Similarly, efforts to correct the U.S. trade imbalance by letting the value of the dollar fall in the mid-1980s were compensated for by foreign competitors who let prices of their goods fall in parallel (for countries whose currency was "pegged to the dollar," their prices adjusted automatically). Efforts by foreign powers to suppress indigenous guerrilla fighters often lead to further legitimacy for the guerrillas' cause, thereby strengthening their resolve and support, and leading to still further resistance.

Many companies experience compensating feedback when one of their products suddenly starts to lose its attractiveness in the market. They push for more aggressive marketing; that's what always worked in the past, isn't it? They spend more on advertising, and drop the price; these methods may bring customers back temporarily, but they also draw money away from the company, so it cuts comers to compensate. The quality of its service (say, its delivery speed or care in inspection) starts to decline. In the long run, the more fervently the company markets, the more customers it loses.

Nor is compensating feedback limited to "large systems"--there are plenty of personal examples. Take the person who quits smoking only to find himself gaining weight and suffering such a loss in self image that he takes up smoking again to relieve the stress. Or the protective mother who wants so much for her young son to get along with his schoolmates that she repeatedly steps in to resolve problems and ends up with a child who never learns to settle differences by himself. Or the enthusiastic newcomer so eager to be liked that she never responds to subtle criticisms of her work and ends up embittered and labeled "a difficult person to work with."

Pushing harder, whether through an increasingly aggressive intervention or through increasingly stressful withholding of natural instincts, is exhausting. Yet, as individuals and organizations, we not only get drawn into compensating feedback, we often glorify the suffering that ensues. When our initial efforts fail to produce lasting improvements, we "push harder"--faithful, as was Boxer, to the creed that hard work will overcome all obstacles, all the while blinding ourselves to how we are contributing to the obstacles ourselves.

3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.

Low-leverage interventions would be much less alluring if it were not for the fact that many actually work, in the short term. New houses get built. The unemployed are trained. Starving children are spared. Lagging orders turn upward. We stop smoking, relieve our child's stress, and avoid a confrontation with a new coworker. Compensating feedback usually involves a "delay," a time lag between the short-term benefit and the long-term disbenefit. The New Yorker once published a cartoon in which a man sitting in an armchair pushes over a giant domino encroaching upon him from the left. "At last, I can relax," he's obviously telling himself in the cartoon. Of course, he doesn't see that the domino is toppling another domino, which in turn is about to topple another, and another, and that the chain of dominoes behind him will eventually circle around his chair and strike him from the right.

The better before worse response to many management interventions is what makes political decision making so counterproductive. By "political decision making," I mean situations where factors other than the intrinsic merits of alternative courses of action weigh in making decisions--factors such as building one's own power base, or "looking good," or "pleasing the boss." In complex human systems there are always many ways to make things look better in the short run. Only eventually does the compensating feedback come back to haunt you.

The key word is "eventually." The delay in, for example, the circle of dominoes, explains why systemic problems are so hard to recognize. A typical solution feels wonderful, when it first cures the symptoms. Now there's improvement; or maybe even the problem has gone away. It may be two, three, or four years before the problem returns, or some new, worse problem arrives. By that time, given how rapidly most people move from job to job, someone new is sitting in the chair...

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